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Kobe is selfish. Kobe took too much money. Kobe isn't a leader. Superstars don't want to come to LA because they don't want to play with Kobe. These are the never-ending criticisms in the NBA world against Kobe Bryant.

Many of these criticisms resurfaced in Baxter Holmes's recent article on ESPN: Lakers From The Outside: The Kobe issue. I've been hearing and reading these Kobe criticisms since the Lakers resigned him for two-years and I've had enough.

I'd like to present an alternative (albeit biased) perspective with the goal of debunking the various criticisms surrounding Kobe, his leadership style, and his impact on the future of the franchise.

Disclaimer 1: This isn't an attack on Baxter. He's a great follow on Twitter and I really enjoyed his appearance on the Lowe Post. My problem was with the criticisms raised by the 24 anonymous league insiders that were interviewed for Baxter's article.

Disclaimer 2: I'm an NBA enthusiast. If I see a tweet that reads "Curry heat check", I drop everything I'm doing and turn on the TV. I get excited when the Wizards play the Suns because of Bledsoe vs Wall. Some of my favorite players include Paul Millsap, Kawhi Leonard, Al Jefferson, Kyle Korver, and Russell Westbrook. But at the top of the list is Kobe Bryant. And because I'm from LA, the Lakers are my favorite team. So tweets like this from infamous "Laker Hater" Arash Markazi really annoy me. [1] You may not like Kobe, but you cannot deny his greatness. He has reached the pinnacle of his trade. How many of us can say the same in our respective fields? It's much easier to criticize, but I urge you to take a step back and see what you can learn.

Disclaimer 3: I spoke to zero NBA insiders about this topic. This is just my analysis and opinion based on a slew of content I've consumed on Kobe, the Lakers, and the NBA.


Criticism 1: Kobe wont accept a backseat to anyone, AKA Lakers can't get a marquee free agent, AKA superstars don't want to play with Kobe.

From Baxter's post:

Many insiders doubt Bryant will take a backseat to anyone, let alone young players. "That's why I wouldn't want him on the team," one executive said, "because I don't think he'd accept that role."

And let me throw in the now famous Nelly First Take debate:

Some people argue him as the top 3 player of all time, how do you not want to play with a top 3 player of all time?

OK, let's take a look at the last two years and see who would have had a chance to play with Kobe, but decided not to.

Big free agents 2015:

  1. LaMarcus Aldridge
  2. DeAndre Jordan
  3. Kevin Love
  4. Marc Gasol
  5. Jimmy Butler

2014:

  1. LeBron James
  2. Carmelo Anthony
  3. Chris Bosh
  4. Eric Bledsoe
  5. Dwayne Wade
  6. Dirk Nowitzki
  7. Tim Duncan

Looking at both lists, I'd argue the Lakers had a legitimate shot at signing Aldridge, Anthony, or Bosh (if you think the Lakers had a legitimate chance to sign Tim Duncan or LeBron James, stop reading). [2]

With Aldridge they botched up the first meeting but were given a second chance. The fact that the Lakers had just come off the worst season in franchise history, Kobe was injured, and LaMarcus still took the second meeting speaks volumes. The problem for Kobe and the Lakers was competing with arguably the best run organization in the NBA: the do-no-wrong San Antonio Spurs. LaMarcus is also from Texas. Did the Lakers really have a chance? If it was LeBron James on the Lakers instead of Kobe, would LaMarcus have signed with the Lakers instead? Debatable. But I'd argue he would have still picked the Spurs.

Carmelo came close. But playing with Kobe Bryant was not the reason he did not choose LA. Same thing with Chris Bosh. Ultimately these players picked opportunities that they felt were better suited for them. I have a hard time believing that their reasoning went something like: well, I could go to LA, but I would have to take a back seat to Kobe, so no, I won't go to LA. Both players ended up staying put. What does that say about the other teams they considered? So maybe Bosh didn't go to the Rockets because he didn't want to take a backseat to James Harden?

Kevin Durant had a famous quote last year on the topic of playing with Kobe:

I want to play with a winner every single night, especially somebody who wants to win that bad, who works that hard, who demands a lot, who raises up your level. I'd want to play with a guy like that every day. (His style) may make people uncomfortable, how he acts and just how he approaches the game, but I love that type of stuff.

Chris Paul was excited to play with Kobe. That was until David Stern nixed the trade. Think of how different the conversation would be about Kobe if Stern didn't give in to Dan Gilbert's travesty letter and did not veto the Chris Paul trade. [3]

-

Let's transition to the US Men's Olympic Basketball. Specifically two teams.

Take a look at the 2004 team. And then the 2008.

One team has Kobe. And that team is wearing gold medals.

Was Kobe the sole reason for the success of the 2008 team? He was not. But he was a damn important piece. I don't know how much I like the US's chances in the greatest Olympic basketball final ever if Kobe wasn't playing.

I think the players on that team would agree. How many players dropped out of the 2008 team when they found out Kobe was on the team? How many were grateful to be playing with him? Even take a "backseat" to him. I'd argue all of them.

I took a look at the average assists per game (2008 Olympics) for some of the players in the photo above:

  1. Chris Paul: 4.1
  2. LeBron James: 3.8
  3. Jason Kidd: 2.0
  4. Dwyane Wade: 1.9
  5. Carmelo Anthony: 0.4
  6. Chris Bosh: 0.3

Where do you think Kobe falls? Based on the criticism you would think he averaged around -0.7 assists.

He had 2.1.

Sure, he isn't the willing passer that LeBron James is. But he certainly isn't in the extreme of not willing to take a backseat to anybody.

To wrap this criticism up I'd like to make the point that Kobe is pragmatic and he is probably smarter than you. He will do what makes sense to win. Sure he has his 24 second moments [4] that sometimes don't end well.

But he also has the ones that do.

And my personal favorite:


Criticism 2: Kobe isn't a leader, mentor, good teammate, an asshole...

I urge you to watch this BET Kobe unplugged interview. If this doesn't change your perspective on Kobe, I don't know what will. [5]

At 18:45 in the video Jemele Hill flat-out asks Kobe if he is an asshole. Kobe responds:

...teammates I've had in the past, all our guys, (Ronnie Turiaf, Shannon Brown, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher) if you ask them they will say no, he is not an asshole. But to the other guys, who show up to practice an hour later, you know them, they are easily identifiable. Those guys will say yeah, he's an asshole...

You know who else was considered an asshole? Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Elon Musk. These guys have made people cry. But they have also pushed people to create the best work of their careers and products that have changed the world.

This is a fascinating topic. How hard do you push to retrieve excellence? [6] Steve Jobs had a famous quote about A players wanting to work with other A players. But if an A player is pushing a B, C or D player to care/behave on an A players level, well that B, C, or D player is going to feel the A player is an asshole.

On the topic of mentorship. Consider the last few years. Kobe was a mentor to Wesley Johnson (who he envisioned being the Pippen to his Michael), Jeremy Lin, Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks, Trevor Ariza, Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, and Jordan Farmar. That is just the younger players. It has been well documented how much vets like Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace have picked up from Bryant. Even players from competing teams credit Kobe with being a mentor. Kobe is a student of the game. He feels it is his duty to pass along the knowledge he has acquired to the next generation of players.

-

Check out this example from the documentary "Road to Redemption" about the 2008 Olympic team. Jerry Colangelo, the team's Managing Director recalls a moment from the first practice:

The very first play of the very first scrimmage there is a loose ball and there is Kobe Bryant diving on the floor. That set the tone.

Kobe's style isn't for everybody.

This moment from the first Laker practice scrimmage of the 2015 season sums him up. While Kobe's man brings the ball up the floor, Kobe surveys the scene and yells at Lou Williams:

Press up Lou, get up there Lou!

Think about this for a moment. This. is. a. practice. scrimmage. [7] The ball hasn't even crossed half-court. And Kobe is instructing a 10 year vet, not a rookie, a 10 year vet, to press up. Kobe closes out his man, who then makes a bad pass because he didn't have an escape because Lou Williams pressed up. Like a master chess player Kobe was thinking several moves ahead.

Like Steve Jobs who was famous for demanding perfection for the inside and outside components of Apple products - Kobe has a maniacal drive for excellence. In the book "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson, Steve had this vision for the Macintosh:

I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it's inside the box. A great carpenter isn't going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody's going to see it.

In terms of an 82 game season that scrimmage is meaningless. Yet Kobe set a tone that on his team, every possession matters, every possession is an opportunity to get better.

At some point each of us needs to decide how hard to push ourselves and others to achieve excellence. Some people may look at that scrimmage moment and think Kobe needs to ease off. It's just one play in practice. Relax. These are the same people that would call Kobe an asshole. Think about Kobe's intentions in that moment. He isn't trying to show up Lou Williams or embarrass him. He is being a leader. He is setting a tone. He is instilling a habit of excellence and kindling a competitive fire.

Kobe will push hard. And you know who he respects? The teammates that push back. I vividly remember a game from last season. Halloween night at Staples Center and the Clippers were in town. Kobe had been mentoring and pushing Jeremy Lin hard up to that point in the season. There was a moment in the first half where Jeremy took the ball across court, and Kobe ran up to him expecting to get the ball. I smiled as I saw Jeremy waive him off. He was stepping up: I got this Kobe, let me set the offense.

Kobe respects confidence. If he knows you are confident, he will trust you. He will get you the ball. But you have to show him. You have to earn it.

In his documentary Muse, Kobe talks about his mentality for the 2009 NBA season after loosing to the Celtics in the 2008 finals:

I overcompensated for how I drove my teammates. I was thinking maybe I was too hard on them, so throughout the course of the year I didn't challenge them enough. It was just not being as gregarious, put my arm around you even when you fuck up, you're doing great, you're doing great. That's just not me. If I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down leading my way. This team is going to have my personality, my grit, my fight, my will, my competitive spirit. So when we step on that basketball court you aren't just facing me, my competitive fire, but you are facing 12 of those.

This is Kobe. This is his way of leading. There is no award for participation in Kobe's world. No award for showing up. At a town hall with Bill Clinton Kobe lamented at the disservice we do to our kids by giving out participation awards. He firmly believes that the spirit of competition is something healthy and fun. And that there will be a winner and a loser.

Kobe has five NBA championships. Are you going to argue that he is not a leader? You do not get to five championships by not being a leader. His style may make you uncomfortable. It may make you resent him. It may even expose you. And if it does, you probably wont last long as his teammate or coach.


Criticism 3: Kobe took too much money which hindered the Lakers from signing a max player.

It seems that the commonly held belief is the contract negotiation between Mitch, Jim, and Kobe went something like this: [8]

Mitch: Mr. Bryant, words cannot express how grateful we are for your...

Jim: Yeah yeah, so here is the deal Kobe. I promised the organization that we will be contending for a championship in the next two years or else I'll step down from my position. I was just kidding when I said it but looks like I'm being held to it by my sister.

Kobe: Mhhm...

Jim: I wont be stepping down.

Kobe: Mhhm...

Mitch: Mr. Bryant, what I think Jim is trying to say is that there comes a time when...

Jim: We need you to take a drastic pay cut. Mitch has a plan.

Kobe: What's the plan?

Mitch: Well, with all due respect, we haven't seen you play since your injury and...

Jim: We need you to take the veterans minimum.

Mitch: This would give us enough room to possibly sign 2 superstars and 2 key role players.

Kobe: No. I won't take less than 2 years, $48.5 million.

Mitch & Jim: :O

Mitch:But, but Mr. Bryant, that won't give us the flexibility to...

Kobe:I don't want to hear it. I want to use up all of our cap space and sabotage any possible chance of us winning a championship because we can't sign any free agents.

-

I don't think the discussion went quite like that.

As mentioned earlier Kobe is very pragmatic. And Mitch has a proven track-record of having a plan A, B, and C. Kobe trusts him. Therefore I think the negotiation went something like this:

Mitch: Kobe, we have a plan.

Jim: We want you to be a Laker for life.

Mitch: We'd like to offer you a 2 year, $48.5 million contract.

Kobe: Are you sure? Won't that hinder us from being able to acquire free agents?

Mitch: We have run the number extensively. Based on the available free agents, and our various calculations, we know that we can offer you this contract and still be able to sign key free agents to support you.

Jim: We stand by this offer. I made a promise that we will be contending for the title in the next few years, and this offer does not hamper that promise.

Kobe: Are you sure? I'll take less if needed.

Jim:It's not necessary. This contract is also a reflection of how grateful the Laker organization is for your past service.

Kobe: Where do I sign? #Laker4Life

Btw lakers have max cap space and then some #mitchissharp #bussfamsharp #lakers

— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) November 27, 2013


Criticism 4: Lakers need to get rid of Kobe by whatever means necessary

This is a really brilliant idea (insert face palm).

From Baxter's article:

I can't believe players are saying, 'I can't wait to play with Kobe Bryant,'" one executive said. "They want to play with Anthony Davis, they may want to play with Stephen Curry, they may want to play with Kevin Durant, and maybe LeBron can entice people because he's the best player in the world. But Kobe can't bring anybody there.

Davis, Curry, and Durant are MVP-caliber players in the prime of their careers. [9] But you know who those guys would want to play with? Kobe Bryant.

You know why the Staples Center is sold out when the Lakers are playing?

Kobe Bryant.

You know why the road crowds chant MVP and sell out arenas when the Lakers are in town?

Kobe Bryant.

This guy is one of the most beloved active players in professional sports, and your recommendation is to get rid of him?

He only played 35 games last season, but still had the third best selling jersey during the season.

And we have to put an end to this notion that the Lakers are somehow better off when Kobe isn't playing. The numbers don't support this.

Last season was the worst in franchise history with the team winning 21 games. Kobe played in 35 games over the season. Coming back from traumatic injuries he didn't look 100% in some of those games. And yet out of the 21 games the Lakers won, 10 of those were when Kobe was playing. The numbers don't sway my point in one direction or another, but out of the games the Lakers won last season, 50% were won when Kobe was playing. The "Lakers are better off with Kobe" group drive the point like 80% or more of the games the Lakers win are when Kobe is off the floor.

And from a practical perspective, Kobe is still drawing double teams. If he trusts you he will get you the ball. He draws a lot of attention and this gives the other guys on the floor to knock down shots. [10]

-

This is Kobe's 20th NBA season with the Lakers. The longest any NBA player has been with one team. Add in all the playoff games and you may have two more seasons. Point being is only one other active NBA player has the experience and resume that Kobe has (Tim Duncan).

The Lakers are placing a bet on their young talent. Would you rather the young guns be mentored by vets who haven't reached a conference final, or one of the greatest Lakers of all time?

One thing that gets overlooked is Kobe's focus, confidence, and mental toughness:

The dude doesn't flinch:

Out of all of Kobe's basketball talents: footwork, jump shot, defense, spacing, knowledge of the game, his mental toughness is his greatest asset.

One of my favorite parts of the NBA is watching the playoffs when elite defensive players get in the heads of superstars. Nobody does this better than Tony Allen. Ask Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. And yet hear Tony Allen send some very high praise toward Kobe.

Now wouldn't you want the young talent on your team to soak up as much knowledge on mental toughness as they can? Because when it comes to the playoffs, there will always be a Tony Allen who will find a way to get in their heads. And yet if they have the ability to focus, control their emotions, and let the game flow naturally, they may find themselves reaching a peak shared only by NBA champions.

As much as he may be just a regular what you see is what you get guy. [11] When Kobe steps on the basketball court the transformation into the Black Mamba takes place. Say what you like about his mannerisms and personality on the court, but as Kobe eloquently stated:

Friends can come and go, but banners hang forever.

-

Thanks for the inspiration, memories, and teachings Kobe. I can't wait to see what you do this season!


Notes

[1] Arash, I'll work on a 24 seconds of Clippers gif from their 2015 playoff series with the Rockets. (I'm sorry Clipper fans, I was mad that they knocked out the Spurs and then disintegrated in the next round, Magic Johnson's tweet summed it up. But I'll admit, for those 3 games everything went right for Houston, and everything went wrong for the Clippers). (Back)

[2] Kevin Love was a 50/50. I believe he feels he has some unfinished business in Cleveland. Plus, he just got his first taste of the playoffs and why would he want to come to the West when he pretty much has a straight shot to the finals in the East. This wasn't about not wanting to play with Kobe and wanting to play with LeBron instead (the latter relationship has had some well documented turmoil). It was about the place he feels he has the best chance to win now. (Back)

[3] But hey, it's not a travesty that the Cavs get three (not one, not two, three) first overall picks in the last five drafts AND get LeBron to come home. (Yes, I'm very bitter about Gilbert's letter because the Lakers got screwed big time for playing by the rules). (Back)

[4] For the second bucket, how SICK was that no look bounce pass by Nash. Perfectly executed. (Back)

[5] OK, so realistically unless you are a big Kobe fan, you are not going to watch a 45 minute fireside chat with him. But this interview not only shines a light on who Kobe is off the basketball court, but it shows that he is a very introspective and reflective individual. This is one of those interviews that even if you are not a basketball/Laker/Kobe fan, you can still take a lot away from because he shares insights that can be applied to any profession. (Back)

[6] Shouldn't be a surprise that Kobe can relate to J.K. Simmons's character in Whiplash. (Back)

[7] We talkin' about practice. (No NBA related article is complete without this clip). (Back)

[8] More accurately it was probably between some lawyer, Mitch, Jim, and Kobe's agent, but to make this more fun I'm going with Kobe, Mitch, and Jim. (Back)

[9] The scary thing is Anthony Davis hasn't even hit his prime yet. He is just getting started. (Back)

[10] This is why Bryant held Derek Fisher in such high regard. Derek had the uncanny ability to come through with a big shot when needed. (Back)

[11] He described himself this way in the BET interview. (Back)